Thursday, August 9, 2018

On the Christian Creed: F. D. Maurice


“All superstition, all priestcraft, in its worst and most evil sense  we cannot repeat this proposition too often, or put it in too many shapes  has its root in vague, indefinite religious apprehensions; not resting upon the knowledge and confession of a Being who is not our image, but who has declared Himself to us that we might receive His image”

Frederick Denison Maurice (1805-1872) was one of the great (some have argued he was the greatest) Anglican theologians of the 19th century. Maurice (pronounced like Morris) critiqued the usual church factions of his day and was seen as suspect by each of them as a result. He was hardly a conservative. He was accused of being a universalist. He was an early proponent of "Christian Socialism" which also made him suspect to both "unsocial Christians" and "unChristian socialists."

But he was also critical of liberal theology:
“Every hope I had for human culture, for the reconciliation of opposing schools, for blessings to mankind, was based on theology. What sympathy then could I have with the Liberal Party, which was emphatically anti-theological, which was ready to tolerate all opinion in theology only because people could know nothing about it?"

In our own era of church factionalism, I appreciate Maurice's ability to cut across party lines to engage appreciatively and critically with just about everyone. One might say he was something of a radical centrist.

The following is from a sermon of Maurice's on the significance of the Creed:

Let us understand this well, brethren, for it is very important in reference to notions that are current in the present day. If there is to be a religion of trust, and not of slavish cowardly fear, that religion must have a Revelation, the revelation of a Name for its basis. A religion which creates its own object cannot be one of trust. I cannot rest upon that which I feel and know that I have made for myself. I cannot trust in that which I look upon as a form of my own mind or a projection from it. . . Neither can I trust in any shadowy, impalpable essence, or in any Soul of the world. If this be the God I worship, my worship will be one of doubt and distrust, whenever it is at all sincere. If I do not seek all strange, monstrous means of propitiating the unknown Being, it is only because I am altogether uncertain whether he is real enough for such services. . . All superstition, all priestcraft, in its worst and most evil sense  we cannot repeat this proposition too often, or put it in too many shapes  has its root in vague, indefinite religious apprehensions; not resting upon the knowledge and confession of a Being who is not our image, but who has declared Himself to us that we might receive His image . . .

But the question – How is He a Father, how do I know He is? cannot be evaded. The Church had no wish to evade it. She acknowledged that something more was implied in the Revelation of a Father than His Name; that there must be some one to reveal Him. She proclaimed the Name of His only-begotten Son, our Lord. She says that He revealed Himself as he Son of God by being conceived of the Holy Ghost our Lord, by being born of the Virgin Mary, by suffering our death, our burial, by going down into the Hell we tremble to think of; by facing all our enemies visible and invisible, all that we actually know we must meet, all that our imagination dreams of; that He rose again from the dead, and ascended into heaven, and sat down on the right of the Father, and will come again to judge the quick and the dead.

If God be absolute, eternal love, as St, Augustine makes the Catechist affirm, how has he shewn it? Has it come forth, or is it all hidden in his own nature? Has it come forth to some other creature, or to man? Has it met him where he needs to be met or somewhere else? Has it encountered the actual woes of mankind, or only those which affect a particular set of men? Has it been found mightier than these, or has it sunk under them? Has this love been cheerfully entertained, or did it encounter ingratitude? Was the ingratitude too strong for the love, or the love for the ingratitude? Is the victory for all times, or only for that time? Is He who you say is our Lord really our Lord? Does He reign over us? Will he leave all things just as they are, or set them right at last? These questions have a claim to be answered; that is no Gospel to humanity which does not answer them; the Christian Church said, 'This is the answer' . . . And again, supposing the words be true, all we have to do is to proclaim them and live upon them. He who has sent us into the world for that end can prove them. Those that know His Name will trust in Him, and so they find that He has not deceived them. 
– F. D. Maurice, Sermons on the Prayer-Book, Sermon X, The Creed, 1848

See also: On the Christian Creed: Some Questions & Responses

Friday, July 20, 2018

On the Christian Creed: Some Questions & Responses

The man in Sapphire Blue, Hildegard of Bingen's vision of the Trinity

The Apostles' Creed [is] the Baptismal Symbol and the Nicene Creed [is] the sufficient statement of the Christian faith.

The Christian creed enunciates a powerful and provocative understanding of the world, one that ought to scandalize a world that runs on the accepted truths of Modernity. There is something in the creed to offend virtually every contemporary sensibility. At the same time it communicates a compelling vision of the world’s destiny and humanity’s role that challenges the accustomed idolatries and the weary platitudes of current worldly wisdom.

The creed provides the boundaries of Christian belief and therefore of the Christian community.
– ibid, p. 49-50

I seek to be centered in the faith delineated in the Christian creed (by which I mean both the Nicene Creed and the Apostles' Creed). I am wary of attempts to make that Creed more palatable to this or that contemporary intellectual fashion.

1.      But, isn't one's faith about one's relationship with the living God and with God's children. Can’t we just say Love God and love your neighbor and leave it at that?

We can, I suppose, if we already think we know something about these things before we get to the Creed. "God" is a meaningless word until it is given meaning. To say "Just love God with your whole heart mind and soul" only begs the question, "Who, or what, is this 'god' I am to love and what does it mean to love this 'god'?” As for loving neighbors (let alone enemies), why should I? And in what way? Why is it so hard to do? And, for that matter, what does it mean to be human? And what kind of a world do we live in? Any answer to those questions takes us into the realm of belief and doctrine. The Creed is the basic Christian answer to those questions. You might prefer other answers or make up your own, but you cannot talk about “god”, “love”, “creation”, or “human beings” without some sort of belief system, i.e., a creed.

It is inadequate to appeal to a simplistic pietism, whether in its more conservative or more liberal versions, that says "Don't bother me with doctrine, just give me Jesus". We have no access to Jesus other than the Gospels which are soaked in interpretation (doctrine) of who Jesus is and why he matters. And the creeds are the Christian guide to understanding God in light of Jesus.

2.      Can’t we just worship God without getting hung up with the Creed?

Again, that presumes some knowledge (creed) about God and what it means to worship.

In any event, within my Episcopal/Anglican tradition, getting rid of or ignoring the Creed would not resolve things for those who don’t like it. The rest of the liturgy is rife with the same story and the same imagery.

Further, the Creed and worship are integrally related:
Nicene Christianity has also understood orthodoxy in a richer and deeper sense: as right praise. To be orthodox is to strive to stand rightly with others before the mystery of the true God. To be orthodox is to join with a community of faith in adoration of God’s doxa (glory), which already casts light on the day when God will finally make everything right. Belief is never correct when it becomes nothing more than a political mechanism to ensure the unity of an institution. Belief is right only when it points us in the right direction: to glorification of the true God, who promises not to give us a secret wisdom, but to be graciously present to us, even and especially where our vision and knowledge are weak.
– John Burgess, Going Creedless

3.      But isn’t the language of the Creed poetic, rich in metaphors?

Quite so. And we should always remember that lest we begin to think we have comprehended God who is always beyond our comprehending. In fact, you'd have a hard time finding a theologian of the early Church who did not say the same. They were not so naive as moderns often suppose. Over and over again, the early theologians remind us that all our language for God is stammering. All images must be held lightly. And yet those same theologians also affirm that we must speak of God because God has spoken a Word to us – in history. Thus, while we can only speak metaphorically about God’s nature, we can bear witness to God’s action. "The impossibility has become a possibility by the boundless excellence of the grace of God," is how Origen put it in his treatise On Prayer.

Because it is about God, much of the Creed is indeed metaphorical. Because it is about the God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus much of it is not metaphorical, but historical (i.e., everything from “became incarnate” through “he rose again”). That has always been the scandal of Christianity to the philosophers and Gnostics (ancient and contemporary) who want to keep God safely on the side of the metaphorical (protecting God? or themselves?). But, Christians confess an historical virgin birth to an historical Mary of an historical infleshment of God who died an historical death under an historical Pontius Pilate, but lives again through an historical resurrection leaving behind an historical empty tomb – all "for us and for our salvation".

The Creed is part poetry, part prose. Indeed, one might say that in the incarnation, God (ultimately hidden in Metaphor) has become prosaic in order to turn all to poetry. Trying to keep them strictly separate or make it all one or the other always gets us into trouble.

To say that our language about God’s essence is metaphorical is a theological truism. To conclude that therefore all metaphors for God are only human creations or that all metaphors are more or less equal are assumptions and theological falsehoods. To say that all language about God acting in history, e.g., the virginal conception, the incarnation, and the bodily resurrection as historical, physical events, is metaphorical and only true in some spiritual sense is to try to be more spiritual than the God we know though Jesus has deigned to be. The God we know through Jesus and the creeds is a God who is prepared to get down and dirty in the material world to address the very literal, tragic, and historical mess we have made of ourselves, others, and the world.

4.      But, I read or heard somewhere that the root meaning of credo is to “give the heart” so intellectual assent is not the point.

To say that the root meaning of credo is to “give the heart” and reduce its meaning to only that is like saying that every time the atheist, Richard Dawkins, says, “Good bye,” he really means, “God be with ye.” However helpful it might be in adding color to our understanding, the meaning of words and phrases are not reducible to their roots. The meanings of words evolve. What did credo mean to those who used it in the 4th century? One need only look at the historical development of the creeds to know that they were meant to delineate right belief from wrong belief as well as to shape the direction of the heart.

Both are necessary. You cannot give your heart to something without some knowledge or belief about that to which you are giving your heart. And you cannot truly come to know something without giving your heart to it. Love and knowledge go together. Can I claim to love my wife but then believe whatever I want to believe about the kind of person she? Getting to know her as she is what it means to love her.

You are not supposed to be able to say the Creed with integrity if you find it incredible (a related word). The very reason for trying to shift the meaning of credo from intellectual assent is self-contradictory in as much as it is based on the conclusion that some aspects of the creed are no longer intellectually credible.

Continuing to say the words of the creeds without intellectual assent and meaning them in the common sense warps language. Either we mean it or we don’t. Or we stretch the meaning of words beyond all logic. What if we used the same approach to language with the marriage vows? Can I have an affair and then tell my wife she needs to get over her unsophisticated, literalistic interpretation of “forsaking all others”?

Reducing the creeds to “matters of the heart” to minimize their intellectual claims tailors them to the heritage of a naïve romanticism prioritizing feeling over reason. It is an odd thing to do for those who (as many Episcopalians love to do) pride themselves on being in the “thinking person’s church”.

5.      That doesn’t leave much room for doubt.

The issue is not about doubt or judging those who struggle with this or that aspect of the Creed. I have no problem with honest struggle with the Creed – historical or otherwise. I have my share, though as I've said elsewhere, there are implications of the Creed that I struggle with more than things like the virginal conception or bodily resurrection (see Virginal Conception and Other Preposterous Things). Thankfully, it is not up to us to believe this or that bit of the Creed on our own. As we sometimes pray, "regard not our sins, but the faith of your Church" (1979 Book of Common Prayer, p. 395). Sometimes others believe for us. In spite of any personal struggle, the Creed is the standard of Church teaching. At the very least, it is what Christians aspire to believe and conform their lives to – however inadequately.

One thing I do object to is when official teachers and leaders of the Church go beyond doubting and publicly reject the Creed of the Church. Why should anyone consider us credible – again, a related word – if our preaching and teaching contradict the rest of what we say in worship? Or if all we have to offer is doubt and more questions? The latter is almost always a power move that hides the real answers those who claim to be about questions are actually peddling.

Doubts, whether about orthodoxy or orthopraxy, arise when one way of understanding how the world works and how God engages the world comes into conflict with another. But that cuts both ways. Questioning the virginal conception and the bodily resurrection, for example, is unsettling to one way of understanding things. Believing them is unsettling to others.


Sunday, July 8, 2018

Praying Shapes Believing. Or Does It?

In Episcopalian circles one often hears appeals to the idea that “praying shapes believing.” It is the title of a widely used commentary on the Book of Common Prayer written by Leonel Mitchell. I have come across the phrase, spoken or written, several times in reference to the current proposal before the Episcopal Church’s General Convention to revise the prayer book. But, the way it is often used misunderstands its meaning.

“Praying shapes believing” is a translation of an ancient axiom long used by Anglicans to express our approach to Christian theology and practice. The Latin phrase is lex orandi, lex credendi, literally, “the law of praying is the law of believing”. Episcopalians and other Anglicans often simply refer to this Latin phrase. It is a short-hand paraphrase of this passage from ‘The Call of All Nations’ by early Christian theologian, Prosper of Aquitaine (390-455):

Let us consider the sacraments of priestly prayers, which having been handed down by the apostles are celebrated uniformly throughout the whole world and in every Catholic Church so that the law of praying might establish the law of believing.

“Praying shapes believing" is an imprecise and ambiguous translation of that ancient axiom and thus misleading. It has led to what appears to be a widespread misunderstanding of its intent.

If “praying shapes believing” simply means that whatever we pray will shape our understanding, it is no more than a truism. Of course, if one prays regularly for God to increase one’s material prosperity, one will come to believe that God is primarily about doing so and that God has no problem with the accumulation of money and stuff. If a church fills its worship with images of God’s wrath and judgment, regular worshipers will come to believe that God is primarily angry and judgmental. But, some Episcopalians seem to appeal to the idea that praying shapes believing along these lines. We want to shape the way people believe. Therefore we need to revise our prayer and worship so they will come to believe better. But that is not what lex orandi, lex credendi means.

Some seem to use the phrase “praying shapes believing” in another way. Our prayers and, more specifically, our worship, should reflect what we believe. And if our belief has changed, it is time to change our prayer and worship to better reflect what we have come to believe. But that is also not what lex orandi, lex credendi means.

Lex orandi, lex credendi, the law of prayer is the law of belief, means that what we believe is determined by what we pray. More specifically, it means that our worship as expressed in the liturgies of our prayer book determine the parameters of our belief. It was common among earlier Anglicans to refer to the liturgies – especially those of Baptism, the Eucharist, and the Ordinals – as the definition of what we believe. What are members of our Church expected to believe about God, life, and humanity? The answers (and the limits) are found there. We are not free to believe contrary to our common worship.

Those liturgies are not simply our invention. They are something we have received. With the exception perhaps of Prayer C, the liturgies of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer are clearly rooted in ancient liturgies of the Church. We are not free to simply change them to reflect beliefs contrary to them. They predate and determine what we believe. Not the other way around.

And that is a major reason for my skepticism regarding current calls for revising our prayer book. One of the resolves of the current resolution (A068 Plan for the Revision of the Book of Common Prayer) indicates that the process of revision will include “providing space for, encouraging the submission of, and facilitating the perfection of rites that will arise from the continual movement of the Holy Spirit among us and growing insights of our Church.” There are lots of reasons to be wary of that phrase. Most of all I have seen little evidence that we can discern the difference between “the continual movement of the Holy Spirit among us” and the latest prejudice of American Progressives. We should not seek to remake God in our image. We should be wary of doing the same with our worship.

I am not in principle opposed to revising the Book of Common Prayer. I actually would welcome liturgies with more expansive inclusive language for humans and even more expansive language of God. But, I distrust and am opposed to the spirit under which it seems it is being proposed. I do not trust my own or others ability to discern “the continual movement of the Holy Spirit among us.”

Joseph Butler (1662-1752) was one of the great theologians of the Anglican tradition (in spite of his removal from the proposed revision of our calendar of Lesser Feasts and Fasts). He was once essential reading in the curricula of Episcopal seminaries. In a conversation with John Wesley, as reported by Wesley, Bishop Butler said, "The pretending to extraordinary revelations and gifts of the Holy Spirit is a horrid thing–a very horrid thing." Wesley insisted to the bishop that if that is what the bishop thought he was up to, he was mistaken. But, it seems that pretending to extraordinary revelations and gifts of the Holy Spirit is precisely what the resolution to revise the prayer book is suggesting. That might be how some understand “praying shapes believing”, but it is not lex orandi, lex credendi. And if that is the way we go, it would indeed be a horrid thing–a very horrid thing.

I could get behind a revision of the Book of Common Prayer if I trusted that we were committed to translating into contemporary idiom the prayer and worship (with its basic theology) we have received and that has indeed shaped us for generations. But, appeals to the continual movement of the Holy Spirit among us do not give me much confidence.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Communion, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament & Benediction


“Taste and see that the Lord is good” – Psalm 34:8

Communion

Along with Baptism, Eucharist is the foundational Sacrament of the Church. It is where we return again and again to meet Jesus. Anglicans have typically been wary of trying to explain how Jesus is present in the Sacrament, but we have affirmed that, however mysteriously, he is present, really and tangibly. And visibly. We receive Jesus in the Bread and Wine of Communion and taste his goodness. Through it we are woven more deeply in our communion with the life and love of the Trinity and woven more deeply in communion with one another. And we are transformed.


Adoration

The conviction that Jesus is really present in the Bread and Wine of Eucharist leads us to treat the
consecrated elements with care and reverence. Almost from the beginning some of the Sacrament was set aside–reserved–in churches for those who were unable to be present at Eucharist. In the Middle Ages, Christians began to extend the reverence for the Sacrament beyond the Eucharist by praying before the reserved Sacrament. This led to the practice of adoration in which believers sit or kneel in prayer in the presence of the Sacrament–in the presence of Jesus. There, they can gaze in adoration at the one who loves us so much–Jesus, mysteriously present in the outward and visible sign of the Sacrament. It is another way to commune with the one whose love evokes ours.

Vision Restored

In a secular society such as ours, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament can seem quite strange. But, its strangeness might actually be a reason it is a valuable and instructive practice in our context. Whether we like it or not, and in spite of ourselves, our imaginations have been shaped to see the world secularly. We experience God, more or less, but we tend to engage creation and other people as though they are drained of sacredness.

But, that is not the Christian vision. The Christian vision is that all creation and every human being is sacramental. The universe, including all humanity, is a vast interlocking web of glory, charged with the grandeur of God. All things participate in and manifest God. Not just grand vistas and glorious sunsets, but every tree, plant, and animal. And especially each human being along with the whole human community. Creation vibrates with God who is in, with, and under it all, sustaining and cherishing everything. The stuff of creation, like some bread and wine, can bear the Presence of God. Jesus came to heal the damage done to all of this by sin and to restore our ability to see all of creation, including every human being, with God’s delight.

In a secular age it can be hard to hold onto that vision. We have mostly lost it. Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is one means of regaining that vision. When we gaze at the Host in the monstrance, we see Jesus. But, it might also be a lens through which we begin to see the rest of the world and each person sacramentally, as something holy, to be engaged with care and reverence.

Benediction


Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament can be done simply, alone or in small groups wherever the Sacrament is reserved. But, it can also be a more formal liturgy that includes the celebrant blessing the assembly using a monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament. The word “benediction” comes from the Latin word meaning “blessing.” Jesus came to bless us. So, it is fitting to end our adoration with a benediction from the one whom we adore. But, of course, it never ends there. We who have been blessed are to go forth bearing that blessing to the world.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

God's Love is Not Enough (John 3:16)


"For God so loved the world . . ."

So Jesus says in the 3rd chapter of the Gospel of John

I saw a bumper sticker once that said, “God loves you. No exceptions.” I believe this is so. And I believe that just accepting that can be life-changing (see here and here). It makes a huge difference to understand that, when God looks upon you, it is with eyes of love. I know there are some who have 'tapes' recorded deeply in their hearts telling them that they are not lovable. And I appreciate that the sentiment of the bumper sticker is addressing the reality that there are groups of people who have been made to feel as though they are somehow the exception to God’s love. So, it is important to remember that when Jesus said, “God so loved the world,” that includes everyone. Every. One. “God so loved the world” – no exceptions.

But, by itself, slogan on the bumper sticker is inadequate. Even less adequate is another slogan one sometimes sees, "God loves you period". Wonderful as it is, God’s love is not enough. And there is no 'period' at the end of it because God's love means God is committed to our ongoing healing and transformation.

Just before the justly famous line in John 3:16, Jesus says, "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” What’s that about? Clearly, it is a reference to the passage from the book of Numbers,

From Mount Hor the Israelites set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food." Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, "We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, "Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live." So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
– Numbers 21:4-9

It’s a strange passage. But, let’s start by reviewing the context. Israel was enslaved in Egypt. They were miserable. God heard their cry, called Moses to lead them, and through a series of miracles delivered them from their bondage, setting them on the path to the Promised Land. Soon after, they became impatient and ungrateful and began to complain about how God was managing their deliverance. We have here an example of that complaining.

"Why have you brought us up out of Egypt?”

“Well, because you asked me to. And because I love you and desire your good.”

“To die in the wilderness?”

“So far I have provided for you at every turn, haven’t I?”

“There is no food and no water.” That is an outright lie – or willful forgetting. God had miraculously provided water. God had rained down upon them the wonder of manna, "the grain of heaven," for their nourishment. And quail as well.

“We detest this miserable food." Now we’re getting a little closer to the truth. It’s not that they have no food, but that they are dissatisfied with the food God has provided. As the Psalmist sang,

So they ate and were well filled,
              for he gave them what they craved.

But they did not stop their craving,
    though the food was still in their mouths.
                                                (Psalm 78:29-30)

As a result they are afflicted by an infestation of poisonous snakes. But God commanded Moses to make a bronze snake and lift it up on a pole. If they looked at the pole, those who were perishing would live.

That is the story in Numbers. But, Jesus interprets the story allegorically as referring to himself as the “Son of Man” and what he accomplishes on the cross. What does that mean about Jesus, about us, and about God’s love?

The Hebrews in the wilderness is, as usual, representative of the attitude of humanity in general, And of each one of us. It is our story. Are we not impatient with God and one another? An early church theologian, Ephrem the Syrian, suggested that impatience might be the sin that started it all. He wrote that God all along intended us to have a share in his divinity. But, Adam and Eve, at the suggestion of the Serpent, were impatient with God’s timing and seized the fruit the serpent promised would make them like God.

Are we not often ungrateful? Discontent with enough? And more than enough? Are we not inclined to believe we are our own and that what we own is ours alone without regard for God and others? All that I have, moment by moment, I receive from God – whether I receive it gratefully or not. All creation and every person I encounter is the gift of God to be received with gratitude. But much of the time I turn my heart from God and from most others. I detest this miserable food.

Like Adam and Eve we listen to the Serpent in our impatience and ingratitude. We are ungrateful for the good things God has provided, always craving more – often enough at the expense of others. And we are ungrateful for the gift of our neighbor and the stranger who just might be messengers to us from God. And as with Israel, that turning of our hearts from God and others gives birth to the serpents of sin in our hearts, the poisonous serpents of our own impatience and ingratitude, our own envy and enmity, our own unlove. God loves us. But, our spiritual snakes make us unable to receive that love or mirror it back or reflect it adequately to one another. The serpents of our own hearts bite us and bite those around us. And we perish.

And worse, we have become addicted to the poison of our own serpents. Like an alcoholic, we are addicted to the very thing that causes us to perish. This might sound harsh, but that is because we take too lightly our own failure to attend to God and to one another, our failure to love, our lack of true generosity and hospitality. And when we turn our hearts from God, our hearts begin to breed the serpents of sin. And we perish.

Still worse, we are rather fond of our own nest of spiritual snakes and do not really believe they are snakes. We mistake their poison for an elixir of power. We both hate and love our snakes and are not sure we want to be rid of them. We cling to our suspicion of God and others, our resentments, our self-love, pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, gluttony and lust. God loves us. But, we resent and fear the awesome love of God that would extract the snakes and poison we have come to love. And we perish.

We are unable to help ourselves. That is why hearing that “God loves us with no exceptions” isn’t enough. If I am trapped at the bottom of a pit full of rattle snakes, having someone shout from the top, “I love you,” isn’t all I need. Even if that one jumps into the pit with me to tell me how much I am loved, that only does me so much good. No, I need deliverance. I need someone who can extract the poison. I need an antidote. I need someone who will come into my heart and drive out the serpents like Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland. We need God to “take away the serpents from us.” The serpents in the Numbers 21 are an outward and visible manifestation of our inward and spiritual impatience, ingratitude, and selfishness. But, in the story from Numbers, God provided a means of healing through the bronze serpent attached to a pole for the people to look upon and be healed. Jesus claims that, lifted up on the cross, he will be the means of the antidote to the spiritual poison that infects us all. God loves you. No Exceptions. But, God has not left it at that. In Jesus Christ, God has also acted for your healing and deliverance,


This is the heart of the Gospel, not, ‘God is Love’ – a precious truth, but affirming no divine act for our redemption. God so loved that he gave; of course the words indicate the cost to the Father’s heart. He gave; it was an act, not only a continuing mood of generosity, it was an act at a particular time and place.

Pieter Lastman
"Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so was the Son of Man lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” God has provided the means of our redemption, our deliverance, our healing, and our restoration. God does not love us and leave us as we are, beset by the serpents of our hearts. There is no period at the end of God's love. He has acted on our behalf to drive out the snakes and heal us of their venom. Crux Est Mundi Medicina – the cross is the medicine of the world. “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ”(Ephesians 2:4).

God loves you. No exceptions. But the really good news is, "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Turn your heart to him and in trusting belief receive the gift of God and allow the Holy Spirit to deal with your snakes and their venom.

See also:

All You Need is Love – or Maybe Not


Saturday, May 5, 2018

All you need is love – or maybe not


“All you need is love, love; love is all you need.” So sang the Beatles. I saw a bumper-sticker once affirming a similar sentiment: “My religion is kindness.” My first thought upon seeing this was a twinge of guilt and sadness, because I took it to imply an indictment on Christianity which many have experienced as less than kind. But, Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” and “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The measure of our faithfulness to Jesus is loving others with love like his. And St. Paul affirms that love is kind. So, when people think of Christianity, they should immediately think, “Ah, yes, the religion of kindness.” That they don’t is a scandal.

But, upon a little more reflection, something else occurred to me regarding the bumper-sticker. “My religion is kindness” suggests that I need not be bothered by all the other trappings of religion – ideas about God, creeds, doctrines, prayer, worship, church, etc.  Love and kindness is all there is to it. But is it? It certainly is an attractive notion. But, is it that simple?

The Christian religion – the religion of love and kindness – asserts that the answer is ‘no’. Christians can affirm that the Beatles and bumper-sticker are definitely onto something. Our story is that the world was created out of God’s love and humans, created in the image of God, are created for love. And we do well to remind ourselves of that basic truth. Our fundamental rule of life is Jesus’ new commandment to love one another as he has loved us – serving one another self-sacrificially.

To be followers of Jesus – to be his disciples – means to pursue the disciplines of love, e.g., humility, kindness, gentleness, reverence, forgiveness, mercy, patience, hospitality, generosity, reconciliation, self-control. We need to take that much more seriously. The classic spiritual disciplines like prayer, worship, fasting, Sabbath, etc. are meant to open us to receiving more of God’s love and making us better channels of that love.

But that is only part of the story and insufficient by itself. Our problem is not simply that we need to know that love (or kindness) is the most important thing. If it was, then Jesus and the Church would be unnecessary. The Christian insight is that our problem is much deeper and more serious than that. Our problem is our inability to love rightly. Or even as well as we want.

We don’t know how to love as we ought. In her book about St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Dorothy Day wrote, “We want to grow in love but we do not know how. Love is a science, a knowledge, and we lack it.” We confuse other things with love – co-dependence, manipulation, conflict avoidance, being nice, or even being mean and calling it love. We sometimes define love in the framework of modern western individualism. We decide that some are worthy our kindness and love and others, not so much.

We do not just need to know that love, or kindness, is the point. We need to know what that means. That is why Jesus doesn’t just say, “love one another”. He defines love. In fact he declares himself the very definition of love. To know what love is, we look to Jesus. That means we need to make the effort to know Jesus and his way of love rather than how we might imagine him to be. By becoming familiar with the Gospels for starters.

And what is that way? It is not primarily about how we feel, though Jesus does demonstrate deep feeling toward others. Love is about desiring good for others. It is the way of self-sacrificial service. It is the way of forbearing, cheek-turning patience. It is love, not just of family, friends, political allies, fellow citizens or other Christians, but extends to all neighbors – and enemies. It is indiscriminate, profligate love like the love God demonstrates in the rain that falls on the good and the wicked alike. It is mercy. And our mercy is to be perfect as God is perfect.

I can pat myself on the back for being loving. But, if I look to Jesus as the definition of love, I know that where he has gone I have not gone. I And cannot go on my own.

And that is another part of our deep and serious problem. We know love is what we are supposed to be about. But we aren’t very good at it. We’re not good at the kind of love Jesus is about. But we’re not even very good at love by more mundane measures. If we were, the divorce rate would be much lower. We would all have wonderful, uncomplicated relationships with our parents and children and extended families. The church would not be divided.

Our love is skewed by our own fears, suspicions, and insecurities. Our love limps due to our own emotional wounds. We are masters of rationalization by which we excuse or deny our own failure to love. We convince ourselves that our words and actions are loving when those on the receiving end often experience them as less than loving. We are often selfish and self-absorbed. We are busy, distracted, inattentive, and indifferent. 

Most of us are aware of the painful realization that even our attempts to love those who are near and dear to us are so broken that we end up hurting one another. The Beatles sang, “All you need is love.” And then they broke up. As St. Paul famously wrote in Romans 7:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me . . . I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

Our religion is kindness – the love of Jesus is kindness and then some. But, we are, to one degree or another, failures at love. That is why I am glad one of the lines in the Apostles’ Creed is “I believe in the forgiveness of sins” (“We believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins” in the Nicene Creed). I need love. But, that is not all I need. I also need forgiveness for my failure to love. I need to be honest about that failure and repent. The assurance of forgiveness frees us to do that.

Jesus doesn’t just say love one another. Jesus doesn’t even stop at showing us what that means. Jesus bears all our unlove on the cross and makes a way for us to enter into the forgiveness of God who is love (1 John 4:8). Receiving that forgiveness does not just free us from the guilt we feel for our failure to love. It frees us to love better and more fully.

I need love. I also need freedom. I need to be set free from all that keeps me from loving. We need deliverance and healing because we are bound by our fears, insecurities, and all the emotional wounds that get in the way of our loving freely and fully. And it is freedom and healing that Jesus brings. Not all at once perhaps. Not without our participation. But, by the power of his Holy, healing, liberating Spirit he will work in our hearts to that end.

That transformation can begin now. But, it will not be complete until the End that we hear about in the Revelation to John when there is a new heaven and a new earth. The world is a mess. We are a mess. We are not very good at giving or receiving love. And the mess of the world is testimony to that. Our fractured or broken relations are testimony to that. The violence and destruction that is so much a part of the world is testimony to that.

Even more troubling, we know that while each of us loves in more or less broken ways, for some the ability to give and receive love is more profoundly broken – people suffering from personality disorders, post-traumatic stress syndrome, and other mental illnesses that will only experience partial healing this side of the kingdom. "All you need is love" and "My religion is kindness" are inadequate in light of such brokenness. Without the hope of healing, that is just sentimentalism. There are therapists who work to bring emotional and psychological healing. But, for many that healing will only be partial. Christians are still celebrating Easter and the resurrection of Jesus. His resurrection is the first fruits, the down payment, on the promise that all creation will be healed, restored, transfigured, and renewed by and in his love.

And that is another reason why we need Jesus. We need the resurrection hope of healing and restoration.

“My religion is kindness” is a good start. But it is not enough.

“All you need is love” is a good start. But it is not enough. It is mot all we need.

We need Jesus.

We need to know what kindness and love look like. They look like Jesus.

We need forgiveness for our failure to love. Jesus cries out on our behalf, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

We need freedom from and healing of all those things in us that get in the way of and sabotage our being able to love as we desire to love. Jesus gives us his Holy Spirit to heal, liberate and empower us to love.

And we need hope that love triumphs in the end. Jesus’ resurrection is the assurance that we will all know resurrection and restoration.

That is the promise of Jesus. That is the promise of Christianity.

That is the promise of a faith that is kindness and love – and much, much more.

We are called to live into that promise.

We are called to live with love at the center. Jesus is at that center and he will enable us to grow in that love.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

See also:


Friday, April 13, 2018

Yossel Rakover's Appeal to God


Jews captured during the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Warsaw, Poland, April 19-May 16, 1943. 
(National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Md.)


Yesterday was Holocaust Remembrance Day which corresponds to the 27th day of Nisan on the Hebrew calendar. It marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Soon after the end of World War II, Zvi Kolitz wrote an imagined prayer of a faithful Jew in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust reaffirming his faith in God and Judaism in spite of all. It is quite haunting, but also, in its way, hopeful. Here are some excerpts:

. .. I believe in You, God of Israel, even though You have done everything to stop me from believing in You. I believe in Your laws even if I cannot excuse Your actions. My relationship to You is not the relationship of a slave to his master but rather that of a pupil to his teacher. I bow my head before Your greatness, but will not kiss the lash with which You strike me.

You say, I know, that we have sinned, O Lord. It must surely be true!  And therefore we are punished? I can understand that too! But I should like You to tell me whether there is any sin in the world deserving such a punishment as the punishment we have received!

You assert that You will repay our enemies? I am convinced of it! Repay them without mercy? I have no doubt of that either! I should like You to tell me, however – is there any punishment in the world compensating for the crimes that have been committed against us?

You say, I know, that it is no longer a question of sin and punishment, but rather a situation in which Your countenance is veiled, in which humanity is abandoned to its evil instincts. But I should like to ask You, O Lord – and this question burns in me like a consuming fire – what more, O what more, must transpire before You unveil Your countenance again to the world?

I want to say to You that now, more than in any previous period of our eternal path of agony, we, we the tortured, the humiliated, the buried alive and burned alive, we the insulted, the mocked, the lonely, the forsaken by God and man – we have the right to know what are the limits of Your forbearance?

I should like to say something more: Do not put the rope under too much strain lest, alas, it snap! The test to which You have put us is so severe, so unbearably severe, that You should – You must – forgive those members of Your people who, in their misery, have turned from You.

. . . I tell You this because I do believe in You, because I believe in You more strongly than ever, because now I know that You are My Lord, because after all You are not, You cannot possibly be after all the God of those whose deeds are the most horrible expression of ungodliness!

. . . I die peacefully, but not complacently; persecuted but not enslaved; embittered but not cynical; a believer but not a supplicant; a lover of God but not blind amen-sayer of His.

I have followed Him even when He rejected me. I have followed His commandments even when He has castigated me for it; I have loved Him and I love Him even when He hurls me to the earth, tortures me to death, makes me the object of shame and ridicule.

. . . God of Israel . . . You have done everything to make me stop believing in You. Now lest it seem to You that You will succeed by these tribulations to drive me from the right path, I notify You, my God and God of my father, that it will not avail You in the least!  You may insult me, You may castigate me, You may take from me all that I cherish and hold dear in the world, You may torture me to death – I shall believe in You, I shall love You no matter what You do to test me!

And these are my last words to You, my wrathful God: nothing will avail You in the least. You have done everything to make me renounce You, to make me lose faith in You, but I die exactly as I have lived, a believer!

Eternally praised be the God of the sea, the God of vengeance, of truth and of law, Who will soon show His face to the world again and shake its foundations with his almighty voice.

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.
Into your hands, O Lord, I consign my soul.

– From Out of the Whirlwind, A. H. Friedlander, ed.
(There actually was a Yossel Rakover who died in the Holocaust)